I love to learn new things. In fact, I aspire to live up to the old adage “you learn something new every day.” For 2013, I wanted to focus on becoming more self-sufficient, learning what I call the heirloom skills like baking from scratch, canning, and making lots of other things myself that I would normally buy from a store.
Sometimes you set out to learn one thing, and you end up learning lots of other things you never expected.
For instance, when a friend told me you could make your own vanilla extract for baking, I was intrigued. I‘d never given much (any) thought to where vanilla extract comes from. I just always bought my little bottle of McCormick’s at the store like any normal person.
Several things about making vanilla extract surprised me. For instance, did you know that vanilla extract is simply vanilla beans soaked in alcohol (typically vodka)?! I had no idea! My first thought was why don’t you have to show ID to buy this stuff? Seriously. If word gets around, surely some enterprising young person will start patronizing the baking aisle to get a buzz. I mean, if they figured out how to get high cooking Sudafed and huffing cleaning products, this can’t be far behind, can it? And frankly, drinking vanilla extract sounds a lot more appealing to me (just sayin’). Maybe that’s why most grocery stores only carry the airplane-bottle size?
Anywhoooo . . . moving on.
Next surprise – the beans. Have you ever seen a vanilla bean? I never had. Maybe, like me, when you hear the term “vanilla bean,” you think of BEANS, as in pinto or lima. Nope. This is what vanilla beans looks like.
Crazy, huh? Each one is about six inches long, dark brown, and leathery. If you’ve ever had real vanilla bean ice cream, you’ve probably eaten tiny little pieces of these beans.
To make vanilla extract, these beans are soaked in vodka for several months (yep) while they leech out their fabulous flavor and caramel color.
I’ve found that there are lots of different schools of thought on the details, but the gist of it is that you need three or four beans per 8 ounces of cheap vodka (the more beans, the stronger the vanilla). People say it doesn’t matter if you use the good stuff or not, but I didn’t want to get 3-4 months down the road and find out that wasn’t true. So I went with a brand of vodka that I knew to be decent (uh, someone told me about it once . . . ). You can also add a touch of other liquors, like dark rum or bourbon, to the mix if you want to get funky. I’m not sure my palate is that sophisticated, so I decided to just try it in one of my bottles and see.
You slice each bean lengthwise almost all the way through (so the end is still connected). This allows the alcohol to work on the more tender insides of the beans, as well as more surface area. I’ve seen some recipes that call for chopping the beans up, but you can end up with bits of beans in your cookies or whatever. If that appeals to you, by all means, give it a go. Don’t be afraid to adapt it to what works best for you and how you cook/bake/live. Regardless, you may end up having to strain it once the beans start breaking down.
As for bottles, that’s another matter of personal preference. I’ve seen some people stuff a bunch of beans inside a 750ml bottle of vodka, while others use cute little apothecary bottles w/corks to give as gifts. Some say amber bottles are best (which makes sense since that’s how it comes in the grocery store). I used 4-oz. amber glass bottles with screw-top lids and put two beans in each one. I did it this way in case I decide to give them to friends during the holidays. Next time, I’ll probably make a big batch by using quart canning jars (with about 20 beans each) and then just pour the vanilla off as I need it.
Whatever method you choose, set the bottles in a cool, dark place, and let them sit. You should shake them maybe once a week to distribute the extract. You can check the flavor in a few months (some let it go as long as 6) to see if it’s satisfactory. Some people will even pour in more vodka as they use the vanilla and continue steeping the beans to make continuous batches. Again, whatever works, though at some point the beans will be dissolved and you’ll have to buy more.
Where do you get vanilla beans? Well, you can probably get them in the baking aisle of your grocery store, but I don’t recommend it. They can be very expensive unless you buy in bulk. I bought mine at a discount grocery store and they ended up being about 75¢ a piece. Since then, I’ve seen that you can get them on-line for closer to 50¢ each (if you buy in larger quantities). Live and learn.
You might be wondering WHY anyone would want to make their own vanilla. Well, besides the obvious answer (you bake a lot and go through the stuff like water), it can be very satisfying to know how to make something with your own two hands. Plus, it’s super easy, and now I never have to worry about being in the middle of baking and discovering I’m all out!
Another reason (for me) is that this kind of knowledge is dying out of existence in many parts of the country, and I’d like to help change that. Maybe my grandmother knew how to make homemade vanilla extract, but sadly, I can no longer ask her. My mother and sister didn’t know. But now *I* do. And so does my daughter.
And that makes me happy. Which is the most important reason of all.